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Corned Beef Memories 

The Reuben is the standard by which all grills shall be judged

When the new Levy's opened at El Con Mall, having given up the ghost in downtown Tucson, it offered much more than upscale clothes and retail wares. Upstairs, it boasted the Catalina Room, so named for its expansive view of the mountains to the north. When I think of it now, it seems as if it was an almost-hidden eating place, designed to soothe the more corporeal appetites of hungry shoppers and salesfolk and smartly keep everyone in the store.

I confess to never liking the "new" Levy's very much, for all its concrete-and-glass modernism. The Levy's I loved was rooted in the heart of downtown, a fixed point on my Saturday-morning circuit from fifth- to eighth-grade. We'd travel in to the old Women's Club building in Snob Hollow (the area where the Manning House and Redondo Towers, among others, are today located) and spend two hours with Mrs. Drachman as she did her best teaching us manners and social skills.

We were trying wards. At the end of our sessions, we would be seated on either side of the long room. Mrs. Drachman had the habit of saying goodbye to all of us by walking backwards and, if I recall correctly, throwing us kisses. She also occasionally wore a dress that seemed to have been made of coins. One excellent Saturday, a number of us--Carlos Jacome, Charlie Dodd, myself, some others--had been sliding ice cubes to each other across the broad wooden floor as we waited to be dismissed. In came Mrs. Drachman, giving us her best farewell for the week. As she made her way backwards in the hall, she seemed to be the only one unaware of an islanded ice cube. We held our breath. But she broke it with her heel, and it sounded as if the U.S. Mint had crashed. I remember us being very good from there on out, for the most part.

From Junior Assembly, we'd go to the library (now the Tucson Children's Museum) where I would trade in one Dumas for the next. Then to Steinfeld's, where I could always get more books from its lending library on the mezzanine, and to Levy's with its musty, layered elegance. I was always fascinated by the little pneumatic-like capsules that shot your money and sales slips off to some secret place above you, and were returned with receipt and change. I remember sometimes having lunch at the old Pioneer Hotel--and ceremoniously meeting Mr. Harold Steinfeld on one of those days--and then heading back to the safer environs north of the city.

All that slowly vanished, along with the El Conquistador resort on East Broadway Boulevard, as the modern El Con Mall was brought to life. The darkly elegant Levy's gave way to what seemed to be acres of light-filled retail space. What it really had going for it, for my money, was its dynamite Reubens--grilled slices of rye piled high with lean corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Russian dressing. With fries and an ice-cold Heineken, it was well worth a special trip and trying to find a parking place. Yes, in those days, El Con had lots and lots of traffic.

My mother used to say that a grilled-cheese sandwich is the best testimony of the skill of a grill. We had lots of grilled-cheese sandwiches on our cross-country trips 'twixt Tucson and Indiana. Those Reubens of the Catalina Room became the standard by which I "judged" a new lunching place where sandwiches were mainstays.

They're still the standard. If you've seen me in the past few years, you'll know that I have had some great Reubens over the years--and some not-great ones with milquetoast rye, fatty corned beef, tasteless Swiss, underwhelming dressings. The Heinekens have been much more consistent.

Suffer through a little more food history with me, please. Once again, the estimable Linda Stradley, on her Web site What's Cooking America (whatscookingamerica.net) offers several interesting stories on the origins of this very American concoction. Read the details for yourself online, but to summarize: It may have been created in 1914 by restaurateur Arnold Reuben for a very hungry actress who asked him to slap something substantial together (he decided against naming it the Annette Seelos Special after her); or it may have come in to being as a consequence of an Omaha, Neb., poker game where the participants made their own sandwiches; or it may have been the 1956 winner in the National Sandwich Idea Contest--a recipe submitted, curiously enough, by another Omaha resident.

Whatever its pedigree, there are few sandwiches as filling. When the rye is rich and crisp, the corned beef tender and flavorful, the 'kraut pungent and crunchy, the cheese sharp and slightly nutty-tasting and the Russian dressing vinegary and slightly sweet, nothing beats it.

The two best Reubens in town that I've found these days--and I am open to other suggestions--are at Ric's Café (River and Craycroft roads) and Colors (Speedway Boulevard west of Craycroft). Versions at both hit the mark with ease and are consistently good. Ric's also offers the Rachel, in which cole slaw is substituted for the 'kraut--and it makes for a satisfying change of pace.

OK ... in my heart of hearts, I really DO want to be a vegan. Things just conspire against me. Perhaps in my next lifetime.

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